Peter Chiarelli went into last season with a plan to rely on some young players to perform at a higher level than what they had shown they could in previous seasons. Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning were given increased roles on defence. Nurse improved, and Benning improved as the year went along. The group that really struggled were the young wingers that were being relied upon to produce. This is where the strategy cost the Oilers dearly last season.
Jesse Puljujarvi was expected to produce consistently last year, but he was only able to get 20 points in 65 games. Drake Caggiula managed 20 points in 67 games in what was an inconsistent season for the sophomore. The biggest disappointment of all was Anton Slepyshev. Some people had hope that he could produce in a top-6 role after finding some success with Leon Draisaitl in the 2016-17 playoffs. That never happened. He got 12 points in 50 games.
The Oilers missed the playoffs last year, and Chiarelli was criticized for betting on the success of these young wingers. He couldn’t possibly do that again this season… right? Oilers fans have been aching for Chiarelli to go out and get a top-6 winger that can play with Connor McDavid. That isn’t what happened though. Slepyshev is playing in Russia, but Puljujarvi and Caggiula will still be relied upon this year. Chiarelli added Ty Rattie and Pontus Aberg to the mix as well last season. Neither player has proven that he can crack an NHL line-up consistently, never mind being able to produce consistently. Chiarelli signed 25-year old free agent Tobias Rieder in July. Top prospect Kailer Yamamoto will have an opportunity to make the team out of training camp this year as well. No one is truly certain that he is NHL ready right now.
Chiarelli is using the same strategy that burned him last season, and it is absolutely the right call.
You can’t have a team entirely composed of young, unproven players. We know McDavid and Draisaitl will produce, and veterans like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Milan Lucic will be counted on to lead the charge for the Oilers. This was also the case last season. I would much rather be in a position like the Oilers are currently in where they have a lot of talented players that have yet to break out than have expensive veterans that have been producing for a while.
A basic understanding of a bell curve will show why betting on the unproven youngsters is the right call. In a previous article on Milan Lucic, I referenced a study that found that a player’s prime years are between the ages of 24 and 32. Based on this, the peak of the bell curve for a player is generally at 28 years of age. The Oilers are obviously tight up against the cap; but even if Chiarelli had decided that he wanted to sign a top free agent forward, he would’ve been signing a player that is at or nearing the peak of his career. John Tavares and Evander Kane are both 27 years old. It is likely that in one of the next three seasons, those players will hit their peaks and then they will start declining. James Neal is 30 years old. He has likely already hit his peak and his production will start tapering off. Chiarelli could’ve also decided to go out and trade for a guy like Jeff Skinner, who is 26 years old. He would’ve had to give up assets to get a guy who is already expensive and will become even more expensive after next year, and he would only get a few more years of peak productivity in return. These guys can all still play, but they are not far away from becoming expensive problems based on their age. We have seen what has happened with Milan Lucic. He can still play, but nobody is predicting that he will push for 60 points ever again in his career.
Ideally, you want to find guys that you think are capable of producing at a high level, and you want to have them on your team BEFORE they break out. Jesse Puljujarvi is 20 years old. Drake Caggiula is 24 years old. Ty Rattie, Pontus Aberg, and Tobias Rieder are 25 years old. Yamamoto is 19 years old. These players are still on the correct side of the bell curve. They have not reached their peaks yet, and they are all affordable. These players all have the chance to provide great value to Chiarelli and the Oilers.
The 26 and 27-year old players that I mentioned earlier are technically still on the correct side of the bell curve, but they are so close to the peak that their production won’t increase by all that much in the next couple of years. We know approximately what we are getting with those players. In my estimation, this season represents the last chance for 25-year olds Rattie and Aberg to break out. Whatever spike in production they may see leading up to their 28-year old seasons after this one will be minimal because they will be approaching the peak of the bell curve where it flattens out.
Sometimes players hit their peaks earlier than 28 years old. That has been the case more and more often in recent years. The jury is out on what Rieder will bring this year. His production regressed to 25 points last season after putting up 34 and 37 points in the previous two seasons. His age suggests that he can get back to that level of production or perhaps even just a bit more, but there’s also a chance that he achieved his peak early.
The younger guys like Puljujarvi, Caggiula, and Yamamoto are the ones that have the best opportunities to see massive upticks in their production because they are early in the bell curve where it goes up at a steeper angle. Of course, each player is different. Not everyone can be Connnor McDavid and crack 100 points in each season that he has played 82 games in. Caggiula doesn’t have the same level of talent that Puljujarvi and Yamamoto have. His massive jump in production might only translate into 25 points. Puljujarvi is a different story though. The kid was drafted 4th overall for a reason. He has the talent to get 50-60 points or more at some point in his career. The smart bet is on Puljujarvi to break out, we just don’t know exactly when that will be. I would bet on him taking a big jump towards that level of production this year. He may not reach 50 points, but he will push for it. Yamamoto might not make the team this year. He will be another kid that will come in and see a big jump in his production at some point soon. It could be later in this season, or it could be in 2019-20. Either way, it will be smart to bet on his production going up instead of buying an expensive player at or past his prime.
Look at the Filip Forsberg trade. The Capitals wanted to add a veteran forward for the playoffs in Martin Erat, and he did nothing for them. Their impatience got the best of them that year. Forsberg has become one of the best goal scorers in the league. The Predators were the benefactors of betting on a younger kid to increase his production. The people that invested in companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Netflix early all reaped the benefits of taking a risk on an entity that had not yet proven itself. The rest of us are kicking ourselves for not getting in on those opportunities while they were still in their infancy.
Oilers fans are hungry and desperate for playoff hockey. If you’re reading this hockey article at the end of August, then you know the plight of the franchise. The franchise has been talking about patience for a long time, and the fans haven’t really seen the promised results just yet. After last year’s disappointment, the fans have grown even more frustrated than before. Chiarelli still didn’t give them the top-6 winger that fans have been yearning for.
Connor McDavid is only 21 years old. He is under contract for 8 more years, and the odds are high that he will re-sign with the club once this contract expires. People have expressed the idea that the Oilers can’t “waste” any years that they have McDavid under team control. You have the best player in the game, so not winning is not acceptable. Sidney Crosby was drafted in 2005. They Penguins have won 3 Stanley Cups in the 13 seasons that have passed since then. Having the best player in the league on your team doesn’t guarantee victory. The Penguins have missed the playoffs once with Crosby, and that was in his rookie year. The Oilers took a step back in year 3 with McDavid whereas Pittsburgh didn’t. In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t a big deal. Fans need to realize that McDavid’s arrival marked the beginning of a rebuild, and it will take a bit of time for the young players to contribute and for the team to be a consistent winner. The Oilers have time to allow their young players to develop. Chiarelli has made the smart bet with his young players this season.